World Remembers Holocaust at Snow-Swept Auschwitz
OSWIECIM, Poland (Reuters) - Dusted by falling snow and surrounded by barbed wire, world leaders mourned the victims of the Holocaust on Thursday, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the biggest Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Vowing that the World War II atrocity must never be forgotten, the leaders and survivors lit candles in the ruins of the camp, which claimed a fifth of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
"I was here naked as a young girl. I was 16. I am Israeli, I have a country, I have a flag. I have a president," Merka Shevach, who had not been scheduled to speak, told the ceremony.
Up to 1.5 million people died in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau, set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland as its most efficient killing machine in the "Final Solution," the genocide of European Jews.
Auschwitz was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945, by the advancing Soviet army whose stunned soldiers released 7,000 emaciated prisoners left behind as the Germans withdrew.
"The snow was falling like today, we were dressed in stripes and some of us had bare feet," Polish survivor Kazimierz Orlowski, 84, said.
In the commemoration ceremonies, candles burned along the snow-covered tracks used during the war to take Jews and others in cattle trains to the camp.
A whistle, the sound of a stopping train and a door being flung open were played in Birkenau, the camp's main extermination center, to symbolize the arrival of the victims.
Most were gassed to death on arrival. Those selected for slave labor were stripped and shaved, an identity number tattooed on their arms.
As darkness approached and snow kept falling, world leaders, survivors and European royalty lit candles at a monument to the victims. Symbolic flames burned in the background.
Huge searchlights lit up the gray sky behind the monument. Some of the 5,000 participants lit candles of remembrance.
"I am not here to talk about what happened. My only aim is to light a candle for my mother, whose ashes are who knows where in this camp," said Jan Wojciech Topolewski.
"I want to say to all people around the world -- this should not happen again," said Anatoly Shapiro, the commander of the troops who first entered Auschwitz.
"I saw the faces of the people we liberated -- they went through hell," he told an earlier ceremony in the southern Polish city of Krakow, some 45 miles from Auschwitz.
VICTIMS, PERPETRATORS AND LIBERATORS
Among the more than 30 heads of state attending the ceremonies were the presidents of Israel, Germany and Russia -- loosely representing the victims, perpetrators and liberators.
"The story of the camps reminds us that evil is real and must be called by its name and confronted," Vice President Dick Cheney said.
"We are reminded that anti-Semitism may begin with words but rarely stops with words and the message of intolerance and hatred must be opposed before it turns into acts of horror."
Vows of "never again" come against a background of resurging anti-Semitism in Europe as well as mass killings in Africa and the Balkans in recent years.
Jewish leaders urged Europeans not to erase the history of Auschwitz from their conscience.
"We fear anti-Semitism. We fear Holocaust denial, we fear a distorted approach by the youth of Europe," Israeli President Moshe Katsav said.
President Jacques Chirac, the first French leader to acknowledge France's complicity in the Holocaust, said the European Union would stand united to counter anti-Semitism.
"Evil is embodied in this place, tearing at our hearts and burning our consciences for eternity," he said.
Set up in 1940 by the occupying Nazis, Auschwitz was initially a labor camp for Polish prisoners but grew into a death factory for European Jews shipped there from around Europe. More than one million Jews were killed but Gypsies, Poles and Russians also died. Hundreds were subjected to medical experiments by Nazi doctors testing theories of Aryan supremacy.
A Roma (Gypsy) leader at the ceremonies called for greater protection of Gypsies. "In the international arena, threats resulting from increasing anti-Semitism are rightly exposed," said Romani Rose, chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma.
"However, the alarmingly growing violence on racist grounds against the Sinti and Roma, Europe's largest minority, fails to attract much needed attention of the political circles and public opinion."
The Swiss Supreme Court ruled a suit brought by a Gypsy rights group against computer giant
The son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi criticized Arabs who denied the extermination of Jews happened.
"It is incorrect to deny the Holocaust because I think the Holocaust is a fact," Seif al-Islam Gaddafi said at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos.
(Additional reporting by Ron Popeski, Caren Bohan, Wojciech Moskwa and Natalia Reiter)